Know Your Audience

There are two kinds of people in this life: Those who walk into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ And those who walk in and say, ‘Ahh, there you are’.

In Europe during the halcyon years before World War I, “Clever Hans, the counting
horse,” was, without a doubt, the most talked-about sensation on the continent. A brilliant entertainer with a unique act, Hans could somehow supply accurate answers to math questions that audience members posed to him. He did so by quickly tapping out the correct answers to any problem – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – with a hoof.

The horse’s owner, Herr von Osten, was always by his side while Hans performed these seemingly miraculous feats – but he never spoke to the horse or signaled to him in any way. No one had ever seen such an amazing animal! Expanding beyond math, Hans “learned the alphabet.” By tapping his hoof a certain number of times for each letter, he would answer questions from audience members concerning the latest news, or subjects such as geography and history. Hans always answered every question correctly. Eventually scientists and other leaders organized a special commission to investiate the “human horse.” They asked von Osten to leave the hall for their test. Then, they had Hans perform his usual math and language wizardry in front of a crowd. But the horse still did not miss an answer, tapping out correct responses to numerous questions from the leader of the commission. No one could stump the brainy Hans.

The public insisted that investigators form another commission. Members organized a second test in which the questioner whispered questions in Hans’s ear so no one else could hear. This time, Hans could not answer even a single question correctly. Instead of being brilliant, the horse was revealed as a dummkopf! Can you guess how the commission’s members proved that Hans was a fraud? Von Osten had taught the horse to read the audience members’ “body-language signals.” As Hans tapped his hoof, people in the audience would exhibit clear signs of tension – straining forward, holding their breath – until the horse reached the correct number. Then they would all relax, at which point von Osten had taught Hans to stop tapping immediately.

Hans was “clever” – but not because he was a math genius or geography expert. He simply knew how to take cues for his actions from the subtle responses of the people around him. “Know your audience” is one of the primary rules of effective communications. Hans the horse was able to learn this important lesson. Can you?

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